Bearer of ardent hopes, the Hirak experienced structural shortness before being brought to a halt by the Covid-19. Two years after the start of the imposing protest in Algeria, the results are mixed. Back on its genesis and its achievements.
“System clears!” Beyond this slogan common to what has come to be called the “Arab Spring”, if we were to retain two demands that emerged from the many aspirations of the Hirak movement in Algeria, it would be more freedom of expression and the establishment of civil governance that takes precedence over the military, which is omnipresent in this country.
February 22, 2019 – February 22, 2021: two years ago, a powerful popular protest movement began to shake Algeria as a whole, in reaction to the formalization of the candidacy of the then president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for a fifth term.
If this Algerian “spring” began ten years almost to the day after those of Tunisia, Egypt or Syria, it is because the “black decade” of the 1990s which bloodied and traumatized the country, had passed by. . Presenting himself as the bulwark against Islamist terrorism, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has indeed succeeded in eradicating the bulk of the threat thanks to his policy of national reconciliation, was able to reign for 20 years without sharing. “Everything but terrorism” has made it possible to channel the frustrations accumulated by the Algerian population, which has long feared that a Syrian-style revolt could once again sink Algeria into the turmoil of civil war.
“The stubborn beats the wicked”
But after months without any public appearance due to illness and physical weakness, Abdelaziz Bouteflika had ended up embodying in the eyes of the population an omnipotent power, at the same time authoritarian, obscure and usurper. That he dares – or that those close to him dare – to apply once again while in a wheelchair, struggling to produce an intelligible sentence, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For the Algerian people, it was too much humiliation.
Faced with the corruption of the elites and the opacity of power, it is en bloc that the entire system of governance has been rejected by millions of demonstrators, marching regularly for months with the slogan: “system clears” and “for a civil and non-military state”. The pacifism of mass mobilizations is a key element. The looming shadow of the 1990s indeed pushed millions of protesters to claim non-violence as a weapon of persuasion. The Algerian expression “the obstinate beats the villain” (essamet yeghleb leqbih, in Arabic) took on its full meaning in the February 22 movement. It is war weary and especially without breakage or deaths that the demonstrators intended to win. Determined, the crowds therefore met every Friday in the streets to sing and chant the revolt.
And the results were quick to come. The power of the Hirak’s breath prompted Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign in less than three months, and his relatives – civilians and soldiers alike who governed in the shadows, outside any constitutional framework – were prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned. In addition, on June 2, 2019, for lack of candidates and in the face of popular rejection, the Constitutional Council annulled the presidential election.
But for the Algerian protesters who did not intend to be duped by the effects of announcement, these events, however spectacular, so unimaginable they were a few days before the uprising of February 22, did not mark the end of the “system”.
Struggling to define the system precisely or to agree on a project capable of replacing it, the Hirak gradually dispersed. We must add to this the express imprisonment of many figures of the movement, sentenced to heavy prison terms, often for a post on Facebook or an offensive caricature.
Then in March 2020, the Covid-19 epidemic came to stop a movement that was already running out of steam. Because outside the streets where Algerians liked to meet in an always festive and good-natured atmosphere, the demands struggled to articulate to give substance to a common political project. A situation which is not unlike that of the yellow vests in France. Many initiatives have nevertheless sprung up on the sidelines of the demonstrations, such as the draft transitional constitution written in more than 400 hands with a view to the establishment of a genuine participatory democracy, or the street debates at the foot of the National Theater, that have become abundant agoras.
An anniversary marked by stagnation
Two years and an epidemic later, the Hirak’s birthday is marked by stagnation. The accession of Abdelmadjid Tebboune in December 2019 to the presidency of the country was a source of unrest among supporters of the movement. His speech in favor of protest, which he describes as “blessed Hirak who saved Algeria”, convinced some, while many others saw it only as an additional maneuver of the said system. They took as proof the imprisonments of activists which continued, added to the suspension of news sites. Confusion and discord then began to divide the Hirak troops, especially on social networks, leaving little room for organization and self-management in order to build a new political project for the country.
On February 18, 2021, it was President Abdelmadjid Tebboune himself who came to revive the Hirak by ordering the release of several dozen prisoners of conscience imprisoned for various reasons for political expression, four days before the second anniversary movement. Among those released, journalist Khaled Drareni, who has become a symbol of press freedom in his country, and the opponent Rachid Nekkaz. The president also announced the dissolution of the National Assembly and the convening of early legislative elections in June as well as a cabinet reshuffle.
In November 2020, he had a referendum marked by the highest abstention in history (76%) approved for a revision of the country’s constitution, supposed to correspond to the aspirations of the Hirak. An initiative that appeared very pale in the eyes of many observers in that it renews plenipotentiary presidentialism, does not call into question the place of the army in politics and does not institute more participatory democracy.
Recording a downward trend in cases of Covid-19 contamination, Algeria made the decision on February 14 to ease certain restrictions. A first mobilization bringing together thousands of people was held in Kherrata (east) on February 16, the city where the first major local demonstration took place in 2019, on the same date. The day of February 22, 2021, even if it falls on weekdays, will give the pulse of the Hirak.